VI On Linguistic Progress

If we wish to undertake successfully further research into the meaning and function of suffixes, we should pay due attention to the progressive tendency in language. Allow me to give two brief examples from English. According to Fowler, the negative prefix un- [as in un-acceptable] is good English stock, while its variants in- [as in in-credible], il- as in [il-logical], im- [im-mature], ir- [ir-replacible] are combined with roots of Latin origin. In his Basic English project C. K. Ogden has attempted to use un- as the only negative prefix in place of all others. Fowler recommends the restriction of in- to Latin prototypes and prefers un- in other cases. We could imagine that un- will ultimately remain the only negative prefix, and if this speculation is borne out, existing anomalies would disappear, as

unjust but injustice
unable but inability
uncivil but incivility
undigested but indigestible
unreconciled but irreconcilible

Another development in English is rather less speculative and should be considered in conjunction with de Wahl's rules for flexional coalescense. Two forms, -able and -ible are current in English. -able is a living English suffix and may be added to ant transitive verb to make an adjective [eat-able], while -ible is still felt to be formed in analogy to its Latin prototype -ibilis [as in vis-ible]. The tendency is to substitute -able for -ible using, as far as possible, English roots. Hybrid words in which one of the component elements is of Latin or French extraction, and the other native English, are still frequent; these tend to be displaced by regular English words [as un-mixable rather than immiscible]. In using the English -able we simplify words to derived in two ways (1) words ending in -able retain the form of the verbal root unchanged [destroy-able from destroy, but destruct-ible; un-correct-able from correct, but incorrig-ible]; (2) words ending in -able remain uninflected while words ending in -ible tend to flexion. In the following examples the first form is the one recommended by Fowler [expand-able from expand, but expansible; extend-able from extend, but extens-ible; persuad-able from persuade, but persuas-ible; potrud-able from potrude, but potrus-ible; suspend from suspend, but suspens-ible, etc.] and these bear witness to the tendency towards uninflected forms.

Two things follow from these short examples, (1) the simple English suffix tends to displace its Latin prototype, and (2) the native suffix follows the simpler pattern of agglutination while its Latin prototype follows flexion.

Jespersen made some interesting observations which are wholly relevant to our discussion. In describing the irregularities of speech, he says
. . . in early languages we find a greater number of irregularities, exceptions, anomalies, than in modern ones. It is true that we not infrequently see new irregularities spring up where the formations were formerly regular; but these instances are very far from counterbalancing the opposite class, in which words once irregularly inflected become regular, or are given up in favour of regularly inflecting words . . .
In the same chapter in Language, its Nature, Development and Origin (Unwin, 1922) he speaks about the progress of language and gives his conclusion which he regards as the outcome of a life-long study:
The evolution of language shows a progressive tendency from inseparable irregular conglomerations to freely and regularly combinable short elements.
I shall return to Jespersen's dictum in a moment after summarizing briefly the principles of both schools and comparing them with the progressive tendency in language.

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James Chandler 1997.